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What is the Essence of Western Civilization? (3 of 6)

- by Kelly Kinkade

Currently, the oldest known recorded joke is from the Stoic School and is one the Stoic School still uses to teach new students. We call it, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Tavern." Here is how it goes: 1) Epicurus (the Epicurean), 2) Diogenes (the Cynic), 3) Pyrrho (the Skeptic), and 4) Zeno (the Stoic) were on vacation. The four were coming out of a tavern and on their way to the next tavern. As fate would have it, they walked through a meadow where many people where making a lot of noise and moving around in unnatural ways. The four decided to have a little competition. Each one would try to find out what was being built; but they could not ask any questions; they could only observe and listen.

After a few minutes, the philosophers came together to hear what each one claimed it was that was going on. 1) Epicurus said, “I saw the finest marble money can buy. Clearly, it is a demonstration of the pleasing beauty of marble.”  2) Diogenes said, "I saw teams of carpenters and masons. Clearly it is another pretentious product of their trade societies to show off their work as being superior to what others can do.” 3) Pyrrho said, “I saw diagrams with geometric shapes and proportions.  Clearly, it is a demonstration of a mathematician’s theorem; but, as we can just as clearly see, Epicurus and Diogenes have taken a contrary opinion that is just as likely right as mine.”

Finally, 4) Zeno said, “I followed the consul and his wife as they walked around and talked. Their conversation revealed that they are building their dream house where they will retire after public life, which the consul promised his wife upon entering public life. Clearly, we are all correct but only in a part. Each of our answers must be put together if we are to give a complete account of what it is we see.”

So, Zeno won the competition and Diogenes kept asking, “What’s a house, guys?” (part of the humor is that Diogenes rejected nearly all social conventions and would not live in a conventional house, choosing instead something small that looked like a dog house, which is why others called his philosophy “Cynicism,” which was understood to mean “dog like”).

This story illustrates what it means to answer the question, “What is it?” And the most interesting question you can ask is, “What is Western Civilization?” You see, early on, our ancestors learned that to know yourself, to understand the world, to grow stronger, to wield your potential, and to create a difference, all you have to do is look at important things a certain way.  What we call the Stoic Way of looking at important things is just looking at anything from four angles.

With the house, the four philosophers saw 1) the substance of the house – marble. Then they saw 2) what was bringing the house into this world – the workers. Then they saw 3) the dimensions and proportions of the house – the “blueprint.” Finally, they saw 4) the purpose of the building – a retirement dream home, which was the fulfillment of a promise. 

But, we are not discussing houses, are we? Frankly that would not be worth your time. We are really discussing "What is Western Civilization?", which means we are really discussing you; and that is worth your time.

As we apply this story to you, you will feel an eerie deja vu as you unlock powerful things deep inside yourself that you didn’t put in there yourself – that have been there your whole life waiting on you to summon them to action. That is a huge part of what Western Civilization is – head and shoulders above every other culture, the West teaches you about yourself and how you can be the happiest.

Our next article will apply the Stoic way of looking at things to you. Until then, try to think for yourself, 1) What is your substance? What material are you made of? What is like the marble for the house? 2) What brought you into reality, like the workers were doing for the house? 3) What is like the blueprint of the house for you? And, what the Stoic School considers the most important question for you, consider 4) What is your purpose in life that you are here to do?

In the Stoic School’s next article in this series, you will be surprised when we tell you the answers to those four questions in your life. And you might very well be shocked by where that will lead you very quickly.

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